Greeted like rockstars as they returned to Townsville on Sunday, the North Queensland Cowboys are looking to put on another big show as they seek to become just the second team to make the NRL grand final from eighth spot.
The Cowboys’ eight-point semi-final win over Parramatta – which got to the decider from eighth in 2009 – comes after the clutch win over Penrith in week one of the finals.
And that followed the Queenslanders having to rely on Canterbury’s upset defeat of St George Illawarra just to even qualify for the post-season.
Paul Green’s men have been widely lauded for their fighting abilities over an injury-riddled back end of the year, but the Cowboys proved their premiership credentials against the Eels.
The 2015 premiers now meet the Sydney Roosters in a preliminary final in Sydney on Saturday.
Like they did in finals week one, star duo Michael Morgan and Jason Taumalolo showed they have found another level in the absence of co-captains Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott.
Their back-to-back finals wins now have their fans dreaming of a second title in three years as they welcomed their team back home on Sunday.
“The reception we had just before when we touched back down in Townsville, you had to pinch yourself, felt a bit like a rockstar,” forward Coen Hess told Triple M on Sunday.
“There were that many people there and they were getting their Cowboys chants going on. Obviously it was very good to see how much it means to the people of North Queensland.”
Hess is confident of facing the Roosters despite picking up knocks to his knee in either half against the Eels, with the latter forcing him to an early mark.
“Obviously there in the first half, just got twisted. I think during the halftime period it calmed down and got my mind over it more than anything,” he said.
“Then again in the second half, one of the Eels players came in as third man a little bit aggressively and it flared back up. I got taken off for precautionary reasons to ice it up.”
Premiership favourite Melbourne will host Brisbane in the other preliminary final after the Broncos did enough to dispatch a disappointing Penrith team on Friday.
Wayne Bennett’s side got the jump early on the Panthers before holding off a late comeback despite losing Corey Oates, Jai Arrow and Sam Thaiday to concussion during the match.
Penrith five-eighth Tyrone May is awaiting scans on a feared ACL tear.
The Broncos are likely to get skipper Darius Boyd back from a hamstring injury to take on the Storm, as well as impact forward Tevita Pangai Junior (knee).
NRL GRAND FINALISTS FROM OUTSIDE THE TOP FOUR
1999 – St George Illawarra (sixth), lose to Melbourne
2005 – North Queensland (fifth), lose to Wests Tigers
2009 – Parramatta (eighth), lose to Melbourne
2010 – Sydney Roosters (sixth), lose to St George Illawarra
2011 – Warriors (sixth), lose to Manly
2014 – Canterbury (seventh), lose to South Sydney.